A 100-million-year-old piece of amber was recently found with an ancient mushroom embedded inside. The amber specimen was collected approximately one year ago in Burma by Ron Buckley, a registered nurse, photographer and collector of amber fossils who lives in Florence, Kentucky.
“I knew right away what it was when I looked at it under the microscope,” said Buckley, who has been collecting amber fossils for the past eight years.
Amber is fossilized tree resin, a sticky substance that seeps from certain pine and legume trees. Because of its special chemical properties, amber acts as a natural embalming agent for ancient creatures that become trapped in it.
Buckley sent the amber specimen to George Poinar, a retired entomology professor in Corvallis, who confirmed the discovery and found the parasites.
This mushroom fossil is about 20 million years older than any other known mushroom fossil. The mushroom is missing its stem, and its cap is tiny, measuring less than a tenth of an inch across. Close inspection revealed that this fossilized mushroom also contained two parasites, one of which was feeding on the mushroom and the other was feeding on its fellow parasite when they were all entombed in resin.
“I was amazed enough with the mushroom,” said Poinar. “But then seeing the parasites was astonishing. No one has ever seen this three-tier association before.”
The amber discovery is significant because mushroom fossils are so rare. Ancient mushrooms, which are the fruiting bodies of fungi, lack hard structures such as bones or shells, so few survive.
“So the amber specimen can give us a lot of insight to what fungal diversity was at this time in the past,” said Joseph Spatafora, a fungi specialist and a professor of botany and plant pathology at Oregon State University. It also gives scientists an idea about fungi’s role in forest ecosystems.
Poinar and Buckley published their discovery in the peer-reviewed journal Mycological Research.